Looking for new blood

WITH its maze of hallways and waiting rooms, it's easy to get lost in North Vancouver's Lions Gate Hospital.

That's why two Lions Gate Hospital Auxiliary members staff an information desk near the main entrance. The helpful volunteers in blue jackets give directions, make calls and will even walk visitors to their destinations.

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But leaders of the 91-year-old society say the auxiliary is in need of some wayfinding itself. The organization relies on a small army of dedicated volunteers, many of whom have volunteered for 10, 20 or even 50 years. Now in their 70s and 80s, that group of volunteers are slowing down and fading away. Without an injection of fresh faces, the organization's future existence is at risk.

"We don't have the young people necessarily coming in with the energy and the enthusiasm to give us new ideas," says Bob Morrison, 69, who shares the role of president of the auxiliary with Aren Evers, 46. "If we look down the road five or 10 years, it's not really that good of a picture."

Unlike hospital foundations, who have a paid professional staff devoted to raising large amounts of money for capital projects, auxiliaries depend on volunteers to help raise money dollar by dollar, says Evers. Lions Gate Hospital Auxiliary runs a gift shop in the hospital, a thrift store at 128 West 15th Street, and holds book sales in the hospital lobby once a week. Volunteers also help with patient care throughout the hospital.

"The doctors will go to their representative for the hospital and say, 'Listen, we really need this money for a new X-ray machine, and they don't have any money left,'" says Evers. "Then they'll come to us, and we're able to cut them a cheque right that day and they can order their equipment."

In 2011, the auxiliary raised more than $200,000 for equipment, furniture and patient services for Lions Gate Hospital and Evergreen House and recently donated $150,000 to the HOpe Centre.

"Just to give you an idea of how much $150,000 means to us: We have a thrift shop, and we try to keep our prices low. . . . We're selling a T-shirt for a dollar, and we're donating $150,000," says Evers.

Evers and Morrison explain that the auxiliary isn't necessarily looking for a bunch of 20-year-olds. What they really need are baby boomers and gen-Xers to step up and take leadership positions in the organization.

But those generations have different expectations about how and why they volunteer, and if the auxiliary wants to recruit them, they're going to have to drastically change the way they do business. They're also going to have to work harder at communicating the vital work they do: raising hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to buy medical equipment that improves care and comfort for North Shore patients.

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In 1921, 26 women founded what was then called the Women's Auxiliary. At the time, the hospital had a grand total of 21 beds. The bridges to the North Shore had not yet been built, so having a flourishing local hospital was vital to the community.

"There were really only two places women volunteered," says Evers. "It was in your church or your hospital."

At the time, auxiliary members fundraised, sewed linen and visited patients. Their help was especially important during the Great Depression, when, like many municipalities in British Columbia, the City and District of North Vancouver were both in receivership and there wasn't a lot of money to go around.

The heyday of the volunteer organization was in the 1960s and 70s. The group hosted well-attended, high-profile fundraising events such as dinners, dances and fashion shows.

The role of women was also different. After marriage and children, most women left the workforce. They had more time to give, and many used their volunteer work as a place to direct their creative energy, away from the demands of housework and childrearing.

Dorothy Reeves is part of that generation. Now 86, the West Vancouver resident has volunteered at the Lions Gate Hospital Auxiliary for 42 years. She has a degree in child psychology from UBC and worked at the Willingdon Mental Health Centre, but she left her profession to become a stay-at-home mother. Reeves found a new purpose, and a welcome respite from looking after small children, when she began volunteering at the auxiliary. Now widowed, she calls her once-a-week volunteering shift at the information desk "the most important thing I do."

"Our society has changed so much. I think about my grandmother, now 95, who worked on a crisis line in Montreal for 50 years every Tuesday for four hours in the afternoon," says Lynda Gerty, director of engagement at Vantage Point, a Vancouver-based organization that promotes volunteerism. "Those kinds of volunteers are becoming few and far between."

Gerty contrasts that generation to the boomers, who have spent most of their adult lives building their careers, working full-time and amassing wealth.

"As they approach retirement, they aren't necessarily willing to make a commitment that is, go to the same place every week on the same day for this many hours," says Gerty. "They want to be able to go to California for the winter, they want to go and visit their grandkids."

They're also looking for ways to use their skills and expertise. Vantage Point worked with Haro Park Centre, a nursing home in Vancouver's West End, to improve retention of volunteers. Now when potential volunteers apply, they're asked about their background, experience and what they're looking to get out of the experience.

For instance, says Gerty, young people who hope to work in healthcare might be put to work helping and visiting with patients (a traditional volunteer role at Haro), while a retired human resources professional could be set the task of helping with performance reviews or revising policy.

At Kelowna General Hospital, business manager Nancy Wells works hard at recruiting high school, university and community college students to staff the three businesses the Auxiliary runs, with all of the profits going to the hospital. Many of these volunteers are looking for work experience to beef up a resume or college application. But the auxiliary board, staffed mostly by members in their 70s and 80s, is still facing some frightening vacancies in the near future.

"I'm encouraging my auxiliary to advertise for a certain skill set," says Wells, who reports to the Interior Health Authority. "Right now my board is sitting there with no vice-president, no president coming up, the bookkeeper's leaving, and there's nobody to fill those positions."

While facing many of the same challenges as other hospital auxiliaries, Kathryn Sawycky, past president of the Delta Hospital Auxiliary, says her organization has thrived by bringing the generations together.

"The older volunteers are really fantastic about welcoming the younger people and making them part of the family," says Sawycky. "We have young students who start out visiting in the extended care unit because they need volunteer credits for school, but start and find out that they like it."

Auxiliary members are finding they have to become head hunters; Sawycky recently recruited a treasurer by going to the Chamber of Commerce, a tactic Evers and Morrison hope will also work for Lions Gate. Targeting upcoming retirees from large corporations, like ICBC, is also something Evers plans to pursue.

Sawycky and Wells also agree that communication is key. Wells makes sure to get press releases out whenever the organization donates a large amount of money, and she often goes to speak to other organizations, service clubs and newcomers groups. Delta paid for one of their volunteers to take courses on building a website, and continue to support her as she maintains the site.

On a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon, 21-year-old volunteer Katie Cairns is sitting at the information desk at Lions Gate Hospital. The Capilano student plans to study nursing. "I get to see how the hospital works, and see all the different parts of the hospital," says Cairns, who adds she often encourages friends, usually those who have an interest in working in health, to think about volunteering with the auxiliary.

Beside her, 77-year-old volunteer Frieda Pahlke, a retired optician, is just as enthusiastic.

"I like the feeling you can help someone," she says. "It's challenging, you have to know quite a bit. And I love dealing with people."

For more information about getting involved with the Lions Gate Hospital Auxiliary, call 604-984-5734.

jstdenis@nsnews.com

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